The following exchange at a public hearing in Cincinnati illustrates why I have such a low regard for the quality of most buildings that go up in this country on a regular basis:
“How is it any different than a suburban office building?” asked board member Jay Chatterjee, who is the former dean of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.
“Well, if it was in the suburbs, it’d be three or four stories,” [real estate developer Carter vice-president Laura] Swadel said, noting that GE wanted Carter to maximize the size of the floor plan.
Swadel told the board that GE has a conservative corporate culture and that it wasn’t looking for a flashy building. She described a process that was “very chicken and egg” where the building had to be designed before GE had formally chosen The Banks as its site.
The subject is a new office building that General Electric (GE), one of the area’s largest employers, wants to build with considerable financial incentives ($122.4 million, no less) from the city in a downtown area called The Banks. That development, which is at the heart of an often-delayed project to reconnect downtown Cincinnati to the Ohio River, is now moving forward in bits and pieces, though the results so far have been dismal. The first phase of apartments and restaurants is of an ugliness and cheapness only matched by its generic quality—it could be anywhere. The city’s Urban Design Review Board, members of which have told me privately that the city ramrodded this first phase through their review, are determined to see something better as the financially successful development moves on.
The Cincinnati Business Courier article quoted above states: “The city has a right to review and approve a design as a condition for its financial participation, [a 2007 memo by then-city manager Milton Dohoney] says. But it’s unlikely city officials ultimately will raise much of a fuss over the GE deal, which eventually could bring up to 2,000 jobs downtown.”
Money will trump quality, in other words. Cincinnati will gain yet another bland structure. Does that matter? The project will bring more people to work downtown, just as the first phase has brought more inhabitants and many more opportunities for sports fans visiting the two downtown stadiums.
So we should just shut up and take it? Should we let Cincinnati once again waste one of its greatest assets: a beautiful natural setting that some good architects have used in the past as inspiration to create beautiful designs, just so that it can compete with Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Milwaukee? In reality the real competition is the suburbs, which is where GE might otherwise locate.
The Cincinnati Enquirer—which has been clueless about architecture, design, and art at least since it fired all its critics in those areas a number of years ago—made things worse by showing examples of “iconic” buildings such as Longaberger’s office building in the shape of a basket or the China Central Television building in Beijing, reinforcing the architect’s assertion that the only way to bring in quality is to flail around with form and make a “look-at-me” statement.
So instead we will have office buildings, tenements for yuppies and empty nesters, and chain restaurants here like everywhere in American sprawl, and all will be well. When the next incentive comes along, GE and the yuppies will move on, leaving one mediocre structure for a cheaper one somewhere else. Cincinnati, a proud city with a great heritage busily squandering it, will be stuck with the results of its own shortsightedness.
And whose fault is it? Not the architects, who place the blame squarely on GE: “GE is not willing to pay for an iconic building,” Swadel said to the committee. That is the only way to make quality? Such a lack of imagination, combined with the slavish, “don’t-blame-me” attitude, is a sorry comment on the state of a profession that licenses and condones such behavior.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.